By Jack Ewing On Friday, July 8, Bad Herrenhalb, Germany, was just another placid spa town in the Black Forest -- struggling to attract tourists in an age when more and more Germans would rather take a cheap flight to Majorca than a mud bath. But a day later, Bad Herrenhalb received the municipal equivalent of 15 seconds of fame. It was a way station in the Tour de France.
The town is just one of hundreds on the Tour's 2,160-mile (3,600-kilometer) route from Fromentine on the English Channel to Paris. Any TV viewer who stepped away for a few minutes to get a snack would have easily missed seeing the Tour zip through Bad Herrenalb at all.
But even if Bad Herrenalb wasn't terribly important to the Tour, the Tour was terribly important to Bad Herrenalb. The town's transformation bears witness to the economic power of this linear sporting event, for which there are no tickets -- spectators simply jostle by the side of the road for a glimpse of the action.
LOCAL COLOR. Bad Herrenalb was already a changed town when the sun came up on Saturday morning. During the night, fans had painted giant words of encouragement for their heroes on the freshly paved streets. "Gib Gas Ulle," said big white letters next to the traffic circle in the middle of town -- translation: "Step on the Gas, Ulle," a reference to German cycling hope Jan Ullrich.
Someone else had adorned the traffic circle with red and yellow chalk so it looked like a sunburst. Early in the morning, townspeople hung red, white, and blue balloons on the balconies of their wood shingle houses. A banner on the Hotel Harzer welcomed the riders.
Despite its name, the Tour de France often dips into neighboring countries -- sometimes Belgium or Northern Spain, and this year a corner of Western Germany. On Saturday, July 9, the riders would begin in Pforzheim and wind through the Black Forest en route back to France. They were expected to arrive in Bad Herrenalb about 12:15 p.m.
BEER AND WURST. For the town of 7,300 people, the day was a rendezvous with history of sorts. Lance Armstrong of the U.S-based Discovery Channel team is planning to retire after attempting a record seventh straight Tour de France win. This would be fans' last chance to see him in competition. For Germans, it would be the last opportunity for "Ulle" to beat him.
The day was also not a bad opportunity to make money. Bad Herrenalb's hotels were nearly full, and the town fathers had turned a parking lot next to the Tour route into a Volksfest, with a band playing hits from the '70s and stands selling beer and wurst. Glasses of champagne cost a steep $5 apiece. The Café König, located right next to the tour route, set out long folding tables to handle the crowd. A trio of enterprising youths sold bottles of beer direct from the case.
By 9:30 a.m., people were already streaming into town and filling up the sidewalks. I had come with my wife and 9-year-old daughter, and we had to cut short breakfast to be sure to get a spot. Even then the best places were gone, and a few fans were even sitting on rooftops. We stationed ourselves at the exit of the traffic circle, reasoning that the riders would have to slow down as they negotiated the curve and we would get a glimpse.
ENTER THE LAUGHING COW. The sky was blue but splotched with evil-looking dark clouds. A lady wearing a T-shirt that said "Bad Herrenalb Welcomes the Tour de France 2005" handed out tiny French flags. A man wrapped in an American flag chugged beer from a glass and talked into a mobile phone. Two hours to go -- normally an eternity when you're trying to keep a child entertained.
That would have been the case, were it not for the tour's famous Caravane, a stream of honking vehicles representing nearly 40 sponsors, from Skoda autos to La Vache Qui Rit cheese. Young women hung from the car windows handing out free trinkets -- packages of Cochonou sausage, bottles of Nestlé Aquarel water, orange balloons advertising the Basque Region tourist office. The beer-drinker with the American flag scored a bottle of Buckler. Would he be disappointed to discover that Buckler, produced by Heineken, is alcohol-free?
My daughter lunged for whatever came her way and never complained about the wait. Thank God for crass commercialism.
TV REALITY. The town had set up a big-screen TV next to the route, and a cheer rose as the riders could be seen rolling out of Pforzheim, 21 kilometers away. No matter how much you've watched the tour on TV, the race takes on a completely different character when you know that the riders aren't riding just anywhere. They are riding toward you.
Soon Mickael Rasmussen of the Rabobank team, in an early breakaway, was ascending the steep incline to Dobel, the town adjacent to Bad Herrenalb. The peloton, the main group of riders, was close behind. Then the riders were over the peak.
"There's the church," yelled a man in the crowd, and there on the TV screen was the steeple visible at the edge of town. I thought of the words of encouragement I would shout: "Go for Seven, Lance!" Perhaps he would glance up and nod, grateful for the sympathy of a fellow American.
SIGNIFICANT BLUR. You could hear the crowd come alive as the riders approached. A squadron of TV helicopters hovered above. Rasmussen came around the curve. Zoom. In a split second, he was out of view. Then seconds later came the peloton, the riders hardly slowing at all but accelerating out of the traffic circle like they were on motorcycles. A yellow blur went by -- the leader's yellow jersey. I just barely had time to shout, "There's Lance!"
Then they were gone. The oldies band struck up a tune. People spilled into the streets. We treated ourselves to glasses of the $5 champagne. Were we disappointed? Not at all. We, and Bad Herrenalb, had experienced the Tour de France.
Ewing is BusinessWeek's European regional editor